A Look at Oaxacan Street Art

article by Kaki Burruss

The city of Oaxaca is vibrant with music, color, and the friendliness of its peoples. Oaxaca is probably best known for its alebrijes (colorful painted animals) and for its woven rugs, bedspreads, and table cloths. Of course, there is also mezcal in colorful bottles.

The love of art and color is not limited to handicrafts, but is infused in every aspect of life in Oaxaca. Throughout the city there are many ancient friezes and murals by Mayan, Zapotec, and other indigenous groups. Murals were also popularized during the 1920s by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Sigueiros, commonly known as “los tres grandes” (the three greats).

It’s not surprising, given the traditional murals and the thriving art scene, that street art has a vital presence in Oaxaca. I love this art for its technical artistry, vibrancy, and unusual subjects. Most murals aren’t titled, but I have assigned them titles to make them easier to talk about. Below, I share with you some of the Mexican themes reflected in the art.

Justice, Liberty, and Revolution

Just as in the Mexican revolution and in the 1920s, justice, liberty and revolution continue to be at the heart of street art. Many of the pieces tie current social issues with these themes. 100 Years of Revolution is a straight-forward Communist promotion of revolution. With a more general appeal, Boy With Flag is a  patriotic rendition showing a boy exhibiting his frayed Mexican flag. The Zapatista mural portrays a tired face wrapped in the traditional black Zapatista balaclava.

Mother Mexico

Closely related to the themes of Justice, Liberty and Revolution is the theme of Mother Mexico and the idealization of the Mexican peasant. Frida Kahlo painted herself as a baby cradled in the arms of a dark Mother Mexico. Rodolfo Morales, one of Oaxaca’s most famous artists, often painted traditional Mexican women in rural villages.  This motif is reflected in street art as well, although the women are often portrayed in a more idealized manner and represent an idealized Mexico.

One of my favorite pieces is a long mural in three portraits. In the background is a rural village nestled in a valley. On the left is Above The Valley, a portrait of a lovely traditional Mexican woman. She is contrasted in the middle of the mural by an angry youth with his mezcal bottle and spray cans of paint.  To his right is a peasant wearing a traditional blanket. The three parts are shown separately, but you can see the village in the background of all three pictures.

Cartoon Characters

Mexican artists love to make us laugh and think by turning expectations on their heads. Cartoon characters are especially whimsical. Porky Pig is certainly as you’ve never seen him before. In Two Rats, one zany rat is choking the other with his cane and carries a can for tagging. Not to be left out, here is Mural Mickey Mouse, also gleefully tagging.

By contrast, some of the cartoon characters are just plain sweet…

Portraits

Seeing these portraits for the first time, I was taken by the quality of the work in capturing the character of the subjects. This is especially exceptional given the rough surfaces of the walls on which the murals are painted.

If you look closely at these two portraits you can see the tag “Alia 2.” Alia 2 appears on a number of the murals. According to Wikipedia, “Alia 2 Foundation is a Spanish nonprofit organization whose goal is to stop internet child grooming to prevent child abduction and rape.”  Apparently, Alia2 sponsors much of this street art.

Two of my favorite portraits are accompanied with the elaborate tags of their artists:

Mayan Motifs

Mayan motifs show up frequently, often with a modern take. Below are three photos on the Mayan theme. The first is Conquistador in a native feather cloak. The second is a modern interpretation of a classical Mayan sculpture of a human head inside the jaws of a jaguar. Thirdly, is Mayan Princess, idealized as princesses often are, and surrounded by tagging.

Tagging and Hip Hop

Given the close relationship between street art and tagging, it’s not surprising to find pieces that celebrate and poke fun at taggers and the artists themselves. You’ve seen two examples above. (For insight into the relationship between tagging, street art, and hip-hop in New York City, the proclaimed mother of hip-hop, read City on Fire by Garth Rick Holberg or watch the Netflix series The Get Down.)

Below are some more exaggerated and therefore wonderful examples of this art.  The first is Muscle Man, protecting his health with his air mask. Next, With his tag flag in his backpack, Racing Writer flees, probably from the cops. The Mayan Elf Tag is an example of the elaborate tags that accompany much of the art.

Science Fiction

Like much of the street art in the US, the overall milieu of street art in Oaxaca is masculine. Missing from the common motifs are themes of family, romantic love, and even romance. In its place we find science fiction. One of my favorite works is close to my hotel in Oaxaca and reminds me of the worm in Frank Herbert’s classic, Dune. Not surprisingly, I call the mural “Dune.”

 

Occupying another alternate universe, Lizard Man races across a grassland with his magical orb and lizard companion.

 

Faces combines Mayan and sci-fi elements. A strange, green Mayan-ish elf takes a toke and conjures a sky with two out-of-scale faces. One is androgynous and spectral and should feel totally familiar to sci-fi aficionados. Balancing the spectral face is a mask opening to reveal another face that may itself be a mask.

 

Masculine domination of street art themes is further demonstrated with the sports art. These are the most similar motif to US style. The Gavilanes (Hawks) is a local sports team and the design is similar to the Cardinals in the US. Street Talent shows a colorful and ferocious soccer dog.

Ocean

Like Jules Verne, the street artists of Oaxaca see in the watery underworld another science fiction alternate universe. Octopuses, sea creatures, and undersea worlds appear frequently. These themes give artists the freedom to play with the strangely geometric shapes of underwater creatures and the beautiful oceanic colors. The images of the creatures are tied into other themes or artist tags.

This Shark Man reminds me of Spock from Star Trek. Also, he is somewhat similar to the Androgynous Man in the Mayan Elf mural.

Death, Hell and Skeletons

I’ve saved this topic for last because it’s probably the most common. Many of the murals reflect death with humor and irony. Adorning the entrance and wall of a private home, The Sunflower Death mural laughs in the face of death–both a celebration and a gift to the neighborhood.

Just around the corner from Sunflower Death is Skeleton Family. At first, Skeleton Family struck me as humorous, with the father, mother and 6 children painted outside their home. It reminded me of stick figures stickers of families on the back windows of cars. Skeleton Family however, has a strong element of pathos. It appears in the expressions and in the lack of flowers and other humor. Most poignantly, the note in the little girl’s hand reads, “Ayer Maravilla fui llorona  ahora ni sombra soy.”  (Yesterday I, Maravilla, was weeping. Today I am not even a shadow.”

 

In Colonial 5 Senores, is a mural I’ve called Fatal Love. At first glance it appears playful, but on second look is much more violent. Almost hidden in plain view is my husband, Billy. I’ve included a closeup of part of the mural so you can appreciate the detail.

 

Outside the hotel Casa Arnel is a fabulous mural depiction of hell that covers one wall, continues over the doors and wraps around the corner. The Casa Arnel mural has graphic depictions of carts carrying skeletons away and giant graveyard dogs. Even in death the skeletons are drinking as the mezcal pours through their mouths.

The last death image I’m going to share is a scary and beautiful mural I called Heart of the Skeleton. It features a number of common images: the heart, the third eye, the tree of life, the mask, all combined into one.

One Other Mural

I couldn’t figure out exactly where this mural fit into the themes I’ve introduced. But it was so beautiful I couldn’t bear to leave it out.

Where To Find Street Art In Oaxaca

There are wonderful examples of street art throughout the city of Oaxaca, which are yours for discovering as you walk through neighborhoods.

Here is the location of the murals in this article:

Casa Arnel Murals.  Corner of Hidalgo and Aldama in Jalatlaco

5 de Senores Mural.  In Colonial 5 de Senores. I lost the exact address, but it is down the side street from China City Restaurant and Buffet.

Worm Mural.  Corner 5 de Mayo & Calle del Salto in Jalatlaco district near Casa Arnel.

Sunflower Death Mural.  On Hidalgo, near corner of Hidalgo and Curtidurias.

Skeleton Family Mural.  On Aldama Street between Curtidurias street and Miguel Hidalgo street.

All other murals:  Located near Gymnasia Ricardo Flores Magon on De Los Derechos Humanos street. There are murals on the main street, De Los Derechos Humanos. Look for an alley, Cerrada de Brasil, that intersects De Los Derechos that also has a number of good murals.

article by Kaki Burruss